true crime

How the brutal murder of a 28-year-old woman led to the creation of 9-1-1.

In the early hours of Friday morning, in March, 1964, a 28-year-old woman named Kitty Genovese was walking towards her apartment in Queens, New York City.

She lived in the apartment with her partner, 24-year-old Mary Ann Zielonko, who she met the year prior at The Swing Rendezvous, an underground gay and lesbian bar.

With short, brown hair, Genovese was Italian American, and the oldest of five children. Friends described her as having a “sunny disposition” and being “self-assured beyond her years”.

Genovese made an exceptionally good living working as a bar manager, a job she thoroughly enjoyed. On that night, in 1964, she left the bar at 2:30am, and began driving home in her red Fiat. Although she likely didn’t know it at the time, a man named Winston Moseley spotted her from a parked car while she waited at a red light on Hoover Ave.

Moseley, who was married with three children, decided to follow her.

Kitty Genovese. Image via Wiki Commons.

At 3:15am, Genovese arrived home and parked her car in a nearby car park. When she was only 30 metres from the entrance of her apartment complex, she spotted Moseley who was rapidly approaching her with a hunting knife. She ran as fast as she could towards the apartment door, but the 29-year-old was faster, stabbing her twice in the back.


"Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!" Genovese screamed. Dozens of neighbours heard the cries, but many dismissed them as a domestic argument that was none of their business.

One neighbour, Robert Mozer, spotted the attacker and yelled: "Let that girl alone!" which prompted Moseley to run away.

Genovese then attempted to crawl towards the opening to the building, now out of view of witnesses.

The brutal attack was far from over.

Moseley returned to find Genovese falling in and out of consciousness, stuck in a hallway behind a locked door. He stabbed her several more times and then raped her, the attack lasting more than half an hour in total.

It wasn't until 4:15am, more than an hour after the initial stabbing, that an ambulance finally arrived. Genovese died on her way to the hospital.

The murder of a 28-year-old woman, within view of a sizeable apartment block in the middle of a bustling city inspired a new modern anxiety.

"You might have a thousand neighbours," Kevin Cook writes in Kitty Genovese: The Murder, The Bystanders, The Crime that Changed America, "only to die alone while they stood by their windows watching."

The crime, now one of the most pervasive in modern American history, gave way to a number of psychological theories, including 'pluralistic ignorance' and 'the bystander effect', which attempt to explain how people lose their moral compass, and are less likely to help a person in distress, when in a crowd.

Kitty Genovese. Image via Wiki Commons.

Two weeks after Genovese's death, The New York Times published a story with the headline, "37 WHO SAW MURDER DIDN'T CALL POLICE."

"For more than half an hour 37 respectable, law‐abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens," the story read.

"Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned ‐ the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead."

In the weeks following, some details of the story would be rebuked, and to this day there are witnesses who claim they did call police, however there is no official record.

But as well as becoming a prime case study in Psychology 101 courses all over the world, Genovese's death also inspired the creation of the emergency hotline, 911.

"The 911 system grows more or less directly from the outcry from Kitty Genovese’s death," Cook told NPR.

At the time of Genovese's death, New Yorkers had to call 'O', get in touch with an operator, and then would be manually transferred to their local precinct by means of a switchboard. The process was slow and inefficient.

After 1964, politicians began rallying around the development of a national emergency response system.  The Federal Communications Commission partnered with the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) in late 1967, three years after Genovese's murder, and decided on 9-1-1.

Now, more than 54 years since Genovese's life was taken far too soon, her legacy lives on.

The horrific nature of her death highlighted a fundamental flaw in emergency services, and means that now people have access to the help they need at the touch of three buttons.